Call to help universities redevelop ‘dilapidated’ high streets

UPP Foundation calls for universities to take greater role in rejuvenating ‘left behind’ regions in England, as pandemic job losses loom in these areas

November 2, 2020
Closed high street shops
Source: iStock

English universities should be given access to funding that will allow them to regenerate “dilapidated” high streets to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on “left behind” towns, a report says.

Two new UPP Foundation papers, which follow on from the organisation’s 2019 Civic University Commission report, argue that universities must play a major role in revitalising England’s less economically and socially advantaged areas, which will be particularly hit by the recession caused by the pandemic.

UPP Foundation has calculated that the coronavirus outbreak has put 5 million jobs at risk across the country’s towns and cities and also found that more than half of non-graduates want universities to play a greater role in their area.  

The foundation recommends that higher education institutions should be allowed to bid in partnership with local government for a proportion of the £3.6 billion Towns Fund, created as part of the government’s “levelling up” agenda, so they can build new capital projects in town centres.

Universities would redevelop part of the high street, either by repurposing dilapidated shops or building a new community asset in the town centre, for some of their teaching, research or community activities, according to the recommendation. This would also include a commitment to remain there for at least 10 years.

Overall, the research identified five areas for universities to focus on: town centre regeneration, local jobs and economy, boosting educational attainment, research and development for the local area, and supporting the NHS.

According to the report, the recommendations would address the problems to employment caused by Covid-19 as well as the government’s levelling up agenda, which prioritises economic growth in “left behind” or post-industrial towns.

They included a recommendation that universities work with organisations such as access charities to develop a “nationally available, but locally designed and delivered” tutoring and mentoring scheme.

UPP says that jobs and retraining must be a major focus for all universities over the coming months and will be “a great example of the way universities can demonstrate their value to their place and to their community”.

Universities should consider that their role can include being “a convenor, a researcher, a funder, an employer, a purchaser, and an advocate – as well as a direct lead”, UPP says. It also recommends the civic university fund be increased from £500 million to £1 billion.

As part of the research, the UPP Foundation also commissioned polling and focus groups and found respondents to be fairly positive about the role that universities could play in their area.

The survey of 1,000 non-graduates found that 59 per cent wanted universities to play a greater role in their local economy and 50 per cent of the public agreed that universities can and should be involved in the delivery of government services in a local area.

However, they also identified them as “distant” – only 36 per cent had visited their local institutions – and there was a sense that universities created a brain drain, with respondents saying that students rarely returned home to work but also saying they wanted them to do so. This increased for respondents from the north east.

UPP Foundation also addressed the government’s lifetime skills guarantee, which would provide free Level 3 (A-level equivalent) training, also part of its levelling up agenda. The report identified that of the estimated 5 million who are at risk of unemployment, about 75 to 80 per cent already had this level of qualification.

Furthermore, UPP’s polling suggested that 37 per cent of the non-graduates would in fact like to gain a university degree. This included 57 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, 50 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds, and 39 per cent of 35- to 44-year-olds.

UPP recommended that the government expand the commitment further to Levels 4 and 5 to allow learners to then flow onto Level 6 undergraduate provision if they wanted to and for universities to be closely involved with further education colleges’ provision of these courses.

“If these changes take place, then universities can be at the centre of a broader civic agenda and a true retraining and reskilling agenda,” according to the report.

It comes as Core Cities UK, a partnership of 11 regional city councils, sets out a joint declaration with their local universities on how to boost research and development spend and job prospects in their cities in the wake of the pandemic. It calls for the establishment of new city innovation partnerships and for local leaders to be given greater local flexibility in the delivery of skills, employment and job creation programmes.

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